Yoga Therapy Articles

Depression – a form of disconnection for what we have lost

Depression, still widely misunderstood and encumbered with preconceptions and stigma can often be a silent, isolating state of being.  

For individuals with depression, there may be constant feelings of sadness, loneliness, or even numbness. As symptoms and feelings become more overwhelming, it can make it difficult to lead a normal life. Other common symptoms may include insomnia or fatigue, restlessness, pessimism, hopelessness, headaches, difficulty concentrating or even suicidal thoughts or attempts.

We all feel depressed or hopeless if we experience psychological stress, traumatic events or loss. It is an understandable response to adversity, but when those feelings persist and become a general state of being, these feelings of hopelessness can negatively impact our lives.

Often, our first port of call is a medical practitioner, who will prescribe a course of antidepressants and look no further with regard to alternative or supplementary approaches. We live in a world where powerful pharmaceutical companies shape psychiatry and have a vested interest in proclaiming depression to be a chemical problem, setting the agenda for chemical solutions. Research is beginning to rebut the thinking that depression stems from a chemical imbalance and to demonstrate the limitations of medication as a panacea for depression.  In the words of Prof. Joanna Moncrieff, “there is no such thing as a chemical imbalance of the brain. We don’t know what a ‘chemically balanced’ brain looks like.”

Interestingly, research has also shown that despite being on antidepressants, between 60% and 85% of people remain depressed and that in many instances, the placebo effect has a better result than the drugs being tested in clinical trials. The side effects of anti-depressants are also significant and can in themselves add to anxiety and feelings of disempowerment and hopelessness. 

However, it is important that antidepressants are never stopped without medical supervision, as in some cases, medication is necessary. It is not within our scope of practice as Yoga Therapists to make decisions with regard to medication. It has been shown that support with complementary therapies is more effective than medication on its own and this is where our work as Yoga Therapists can be a contribution. In the long term, it can facilitate the reduction of medication and in some cases- under the care of the right practitioner and medical advisor- allow the transition into a life without medication.  But it needs to be supervised and in some cases, it might not be possible. 

Part of depression is about feeling out of control and medicating someone, without approaching the disease from a multifaceted, whole person approach, exacerbates this feeling of not being in control, as the “solution” stems from an external source.

It is increasingly being recognised that depression and anxiety are complex issues and that medication, without ancillary complementary therapy, is limiting and far too simplistic. If you believe there’s something wrong with you or your brain, then “fighting” depression can feel like a battle against your “damaged” self. There is, therefore, no recognition that there may be very good reasons for our distress and more positive ways of dealing with these reasons.  In the words of a psychotherapist and research fellow at Kings College, London, Tirril Harris: “it’s not the brain gone wrong but life going wrong”.

Depression and anxiety can be a reflection of ways in which people have been cut off from what they innately need but seem to have lost. Social scientists have discovered that depression and anxiety are rooted in disconnection – disconnection from self, from meaningful work, from the natural world, from other people and from believing in a future that offers hope. Depression is more about our world and how we live in it.

 In many instances, our culture, too, is disconnected and sometimes the standards of the culture we live in can cause depression. Our culture tells us what we need to be happy and this can be dissonant with what we really need to be happy. So, whilst we may appear, to others and perhaps even to ourselves, to have everything we need, in reality, there is incongruity and this can manifest as depression or anxiety, without quite understanding why. The stigma of so-called mental “illness” remains an inhibitory factor for people seeking help or having access to the support they need.

A lack of empathy and understanding in society can be exacerbated by the tendency of mainstream mental health care to focus more on the biological rather than on the social and environmental factors at play. Basic human processes and the necessity of treating the person from a multidimensional point of view are suspended and mental illness is reduced to a simplistic list of symptoms, as classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Research even suggests that calling depression an illness, increases hostility towards people who are affected by “mental health issues”.

“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a sick society” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

Finding ways to reconnect:

o   Reconnecting with self through appropriate, somatic movement practices and breathing practices, which support proprioception (shifting attention to the body), empowerment, awareness, mindfulness and reducing the stress response.

o   Finding meaning in work and a purpose in life.

o   Encouraging more adaptive thinking. Life moves through different seasons and it is our acceptance of life’s continuous changes that allow us to experience it fully. We cannot be positive all the time, in the same way that warm holiday weather is followed by Autumn and Winter, only for Spring to come back again. 

o   Following a healthy and nutritious diet to balance the enteric nervous system in the gut.

o   Getting enough sleep and balancing rest and activity.

o   Connecting with others by cultivating friendships and qualities of kindness, compassion, gratitude and laughter.

o   Spending time in nature.

o   Cultivating Sattva – balancing energy to be more resilient and less reactive.

o   Reconnecting with life – although brain changes can and do occur based on experiences and intense trauma can trigger such a powerful response that the brain stays there for a while, the plasticity of the brain means that we can change the brain in a positive way, too. Even a genetic predisposition for depression can switch on and off depending on environment and experiences – increasing sensitivity but not causing depression.

Yoga Therapy and depression – an integrated approach

Yoga Therapy, with its flexible, guided and holistic approach, facilitates reconnection – encouraging mindfulness, increasing proprioception and awareness, modulating nervous system reactivity, teaching techniques for self-regulation, supporting the realisation that everyone has some agency over their own lives, improving sleep, promoting changes in behaviour and improving physical, mental and emotional resilience and strength. 

o   Yoga Therapy works in a trauma-sensitive way, creating a place of safety, setting clear boundaries and promoting “Sangha” -community- thereby building connections and trust.

o   Yoga Therapy works as part of a “health” team, in a collaborative way, connecting the client, the medical profession and other synergistic modalities.

o   Yoga Therapy can help to re-organise the mind, reintegrating our entire mind and body systems and supporting the processes of homeostasis.

o   Processing emotions through specific movements can allow clients to notice or allow feelings and emotions to arise and to develop their capacity to deal with them, thereby responding in a more positive way, without having to relive the trauma or loss.o   Yoga Therapy has a broad approach, addressing all the koshas/energetic aspects of the human being – body, breath, mind, wisdom and spirit – an integrated approach to mental and physical wellbeing, taking into consideration the person’s environment and their connection with the world.